Is the New Honda Insight the Perfect Honda Hybrid Two Decades Too Late?

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain

Attractive. Well received. A winner on paper. Technologically advanced. Badged with a logo that keeps producing record sales numbers.

One would assume that this is all that’s needed for the Honda Insight to be a raging marketplace success, at least in 1999.

1999 this is most certainly not, which highlights one glaring problem: the 2019 Insight is an attractive, well-received, impressive-on-paper, technologically-advanced Honda sedan.

Sedan. Sedan? Yes, sedan.

To be fair to the first-generation Honda Insight, there was never any intention for the Honda hybrid of late 1999 to become a volume seller. There was the two-seat nature, the single-minded focus on fuel economy, the cost impact of an aluminum structure, and the oddball wheel skirts.

Still, the roughly 14,000 Insights sold in the U.S. during the first-gen’s tenure shows how far Honda was from the mainstream.

By the time the second Insight arrived in 2009, America’s hybrid market bore no resemblance to the market the Insight created nearly a decade prior. It wasn’t just a far more successful version of its direct rival, the Toyota Prius, which was 25 times more common in 2009 than in 2000, that limited the second Insight’s success. There were also rivals such as Honda’s own Civic Hybrid and hybrid variants of popular cars such as the Toyota Camry. The mere existence of competitors curtailed second-generation Insight popularity; so too did the Insight’s incapacity to live up to the Toyota Prius, both on paper and on the road.

Honda sold only 73,000 copies of the second-gen Insight in the U.S. between 2009 and 2017, when leftovers were still leaving showrooms. Over 1 million copies of the core Prius sold during the same timeframe.

But what if the second-gen Insight – rather than being unattractive, critically dismissed, a loser on paper and technologically rather ordinary – was a generally handsome, well-regarded, Prius-baiting four-door?

In that case, Honda would have sold far more than 73,000 Insights, and Toyota likely wouldn’t have sold more than 1 million Prii.

Fast forward to the latter stages of 2018, however, and the new Insight’s quality components and bodywork and $23,725 price point (the Prius starts at $25,640) may not be enough to overcome major anti-car headwinds.

Look to the latest Prius’s own fall from grace as an example of what the new Insight might encounter. The latest (admittedly stylistically-challenged) Prius is by all accounts the best Prius. Yet U.S. Prius volume has fallen by more than half since 2013.

Honda hasn’t declared exactly how many Insights the company plans to sell in the U.S. AutoPacific forecasts 29,000 Insight sales in the U.S. in 2019, 38-percent more than the second-generation Insight managed at its peak but less than half the figure the Prius produced last year.

It won’t be easy to reach even those modest expectations. Honda’s latest Accord is likewise a vastly improved sedan, but Honda is selling 14-percent fewer new Accords than the company sold old Accords a year ago. In fact, Honda is on track for 277,000 Accord sales in 2018, 111,000 fewer Accords than Honda sold in 2014 and the lowest Accord total since 2011.

The Insight is entering a market where its most direct rival is fading and where its firmly-established big brother is losing momentum. Honda finally figured out what the Insight should be, yet the prevailing climate is producing decidedly unfavorable conditions.

Or, could it be that the Insight’s slippery aerodynamics will pay no mind to the headwinds?

[Images: Honda]

Timothy Cain
Timothy Cain

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  • Geozinger Geozinger on Jun 27, 2018

    I'm not a real fan of recent Honda styling, but I guess the truly well-designed cars of the 80's are never going to return. However, this is by far the best looking car of the entire line. Honda really should have made this the standard Civic and made the new boy-racer Civic the Civic GT or something equally different. But, judging by recent trends, this may be another Honda Hybrid Mistake(TM), again misjudging the market for hybrids and sedans. I agree with others, this really should have been a CUV.

  • Svan Svan on Sep 12, 2019

    Long time reader. Came here to say I bought one of these, a Canadian- spec touring model. The drive is very good, the acceleration not memorable but very sufficient. Very good handling and feel. Non-Jetsons interior with a genuine volume knob. Hooray for all that. Plus it looks nothing like the gonzo civics. The white interior sure looks nice but I would get tired of it quick. If this were a CUV there is no chance I would have bought it. A hatch would have been good but it turns out the trunk is enormous. Trade off, it gets a very good sound system given the speaker placement in the rear window.

  • 3-On-The-Tree I don’t think Toyotas going down.
  • ToolGuy Random thoughts (bulleted list because it should work on this page):• Carlos Tavares is a very smart individual.• I get the sense that the western hemisphere portion of Stellantis was even more messed up than he originally believed (I have no data), which is why the plan (old plan, original plan) has taken longer than expected (longer than I expected).• All the OEMs who have taken a serious look at what is happening with EVs in China have had to take a step back and reassess (oversimplification: they were thinking mostly business-as-usual with some tweaks here and there, and now realize they have bigger issues, much bigger, really big).• You (dear TTAC reader) aren't ready to hear this yet, but the EV thing is a tsunami (the thing has already done the thing, just hasn't reached you yet). I hesitate to even tell you, but it is the truth.
  • ToolGuy ¶ I have kicked around doing an engine rebuild at some point (I never have on an automobile); right now my interest level in that is pretty low, say 2/5.¶ It could be interesting to do an engine swap at some point (also haven't done that), call that 2/5 as well.¶ Building a kit car would be interesting but a big commitment, let's say 1/5 realistically.¶ Frame-up restoration, very little interest, 1/5.¶ I have repainted a vehicle (down to bare metal) and that was interesting/engaging (didn't have the right facilities, but made it work, sort of lol).¶ Taking a vehicle which I like where the ICE has given out and converting it to EV sounds engaging and appealing. Would not do it anytime soon, maybe 3 to 5 years out. Current interest level 4/5.¶ Building my own car (from scratch) would have some significant hurdles. Unless I started my own car company, which might involve other hurdles. 😉
  • Rover Sig "Value" is what people perceive as its worth. What is the worth or value of an EV somebody creates out of a used car? People value different things, but for a vehicle, people generally ascribe worth in terms of reliability, maintainability, safety, appearance and style, utility (payload, range, etc.), convenience, operating cost, projected life, support network, etc. "Value for money" means how much worth would people think it had compared to competing vehicles on the market, in other words, would it be a good deal to buy one, compared to other vehicles one could get? Consider what price you would have to ask for it, including the parts and labor you put into it, because that would affect the “for the money” part of the “value for money” calculation. An indicator of whether people think an EV-built-in-a-used-car would provide "value for money" is the current level of demand for used cars turned into EVs. Are there a lot of people looking for these on the market? Or would building one just be a hobby? Repairing an existing EV, bringing it back into spec, might create better value for the money. Although demand for EVs is reportedly down recently.
  • ToolGuy Those of you who aren't listening to the TTAC Podcast, you really don't know what you are missing.